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Greens Defend Walruses|From Big Oil in Alaska

(CN) - Six environmental groups asked a federal judge to stop the offshore oil industry from encroaching on habitat vital to legally protected Pacific walruses in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

"Walruses relay on sea ice in the Chukchi Sea to rest, rear their calves, avoid predators and reach their feeding grounds," lead plaintiff Alaska Wilderness League says in its Nov. 10 lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pacific walruses can grow to 12 feet long and weigh more than 2 tons. They rest on ice floes while hunting for molluscs. A social animal, the largest bulls in a pack are referred to as "bosses."

Joined by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, the plaintiffs say that drilling, seismic surveying and using vessels, planes and helicopters harasses and harms the animals.

They asked U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop the encroachment under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The groups claim that the defendants erroneously concluded that only small numbers of walruses, with a negligible impact on the whole population, will be affected by the industry's activities in a "critical foraging area."

They also challenge an environmental impact study with a finding of no significant impact.

"In these low-ice years, walruses abandon the ice as it retreats northward and congregate in the tens of thousands at coastal haulouts, including on the U.S. Chukchi Sea coast," says the complaint. "Walruses in these haulouts generally are far from their ocean feeding areas and are vulnerable to disturbance from human activities, which can cause stampedes that result in trampling deaths."

Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 found that due to melting sea ice from climate warming listing the walruses as threatened was warranted, but precluded at the time. That ruling means that the best available information compels that the species be listed, but inadequate resources and/or other priorities trump the need.

Alaska flatly disagreed with the finding.

"While we concur with the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service that walrus habitat may change over the next 25-50 years, available information about life history characteristics, previous experience with warming climates, and Atlantic walrus ecosystem corollaries suggests that walrus will be able to adapt to these conditions," Doug Vincent-Lang, the state's endangered species coordinator said in a statement at the time.

The plaintiffs want the incidental take regulation set aside, the approvals set aside as arbitrary and capricious, an injunction and costs.

They are represented by Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney of the Alaska regional office of Earthjustice.

Plaintiffs include the Sierra Club and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.

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